CRITIPEG: Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention

131 pages, The Architecture Observer, 2014. See also

Undocumented explores forms and spaces that separate cause and effect, object and subject, self and other. Toronto-based artist and organizer Tings Chak prompts the reader to consider social responsibility and complicity through ignorance (or choosing not to see). Through this graphic novel, Chak also challenges a discipline to confront its own acts of concealment.

Undocumented is part of Chak’s master’s in architecture, but architecture school is not a prerequisite for this book. It’s currently being used as a text for Candida Rifkind’s 3000-level University of Winnipeg English course, “Topics in Comics and Graphic Narrative: Canadian Comics,” and is on sale at Index.

While this could be a heady and technical piece, Chak’s narrative technique and pacing throughout the book call the reader in to connect personally and viscerally with the effects of incarceration.

Undocumented’s arc moves from general cityscapes through detention spaces and into the very heart of migrant detainees’ experiences. Many have been imprisoned for having insufficient documentation of citizenship or for crossing borders after being displaced by conflict. They’re held in maximum security centres, sometimes for years, sometimes indefinitely.

The introductory panels are panoramic street views, echoing the 365-degree view popularized by Google maps and security cameras. This technique places the eye of surveillance in an unexpected place – the middle of a residential street – while the culprit it’s searching for is the detention centre. By design, it’s hidden in plain sight.

Chak highlights the contrast between an atmosphere of belonging and the actuality of dispossession with a simple description: “These spaces are where people without status are expelled to, to buildings and landscapes so banal, that they can go by unnoticed.”

For the majority of the narrative, Chak leads the reader through a detention centre’s spaces, fenced-in parking spots, heavy and secure doors, bare hallways, interview rooms and dormitories. The elements of construction repeat themselves endlessly, and the exact trajectory through the building is nearly impossible to track.

In full-page panels, Chak recreates - as best as one can, on a page - the limited and disorienting experience of detainees: “Inside, they never let you see the horizon. Instead, it is a sequence of fragments … Inside, you lose your spatial bearings and markings, you lose your identity, and subjecthood.”

Beneath these panels, a conversation unfolds slowly, seemingly addressing the reader as “you,” as the reader is challenged on ethics and around how a job is done. Gradually, as Chak takes “you” through the building, the subject of questioning is revealed as a “well-known unnamed architect who designed … a 4,000-capacity desert tent city for migrants.”

The interviewer tries, in vain, to create a personal link between the famous architect and the effect of their works. The responses echo the 1963 Milgram experiment, which tested the capacity for ordinary people to harm others under the guise of following orders.

“The government has policies, and this is manifest also in the projects that need to be built … That’s where I come in. Architecture was always connected to big money and political power, but you shouldn’t think about that too much,” the architect is quoted as saying.

Before it’s revealed to be an interview, the text reads as an invitation to the reader. Outside, facing a door, within a fenced-in pen: “Can we start?” Then moving through the door, into a hallway, facing another door and another surveillance camera: “Let’s start.”

Read (or misread) as an invitation to a non-migrant-detainee reader, this invocation to movement highlights the illusion of choice. The reader could choose not to turn the page and follow Chak’s narrative. They could choose to scale back to the preferable facade of a street view, of the abstracted workings of government and policy in a space designed to seem far removed from their own.

But the actual path of movement set forth for detainees is preset. The spaces they’re confined in will continue to exist whether those outside see them or not.

The epilogue scales back up to situate spatial and personal experiences into a broader political context, with first-person narratives of detainees’ struggles to survive through indefinite detention, including their pleas for the outside world to recognize the inhumanity of their position.

After meticulously detailing the structure of detention centres and their effects, Chak offers, through the basic elements of migrant organizing and definitions of key terms, a possible outline for reconnection and a challenge for the reader to effect change.

Published in Volume 72, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 18, 2018)

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